From its first performance in Venice in 1853 onwards, Verdi’s most celebrated opera has been tinged with the scent of scandal: the censors objected to the contemporary setting of the plot and obliged the composer to transpose it to the period of Louis XIV. Indeed, audiences could not bear to see their own reflections in the mirror Verdi held up to them: the reflection of a hypocritical society prepared to lead astray – such is the literal meaning of the word traviata – a woman and sacrifice her on the altar of bourgeois morality.
From that time on, the story of Violetta Valery, repentant courtesan, who sacrifices her love for Alfredo to preserve the honour of his family, can be interpreted in two different ways: the first compassionate, consisting in seeing Violetta’s death as her redemption; the other as sketched by Roland Barthes, who analyses the libretto from the angle of social domination, arguing that Marguerite’s (Violetta’s) sacrifice is “a means (far superior to love) of gaining recognition from the world of her masters”. It is a safe bet that the most subversive productions opt for this second interpretation.
The work was first performed in France in 1856 at the Théâtre des Italiens. That this Italian composer, who clearly appreciated French authors, having already set Victor Hugo, should have chosen a libretto inspired by La Dame aux camellias by Alexandre Dumas the younger, was a matter for self-congratulation. Verdi, it was said, took great care over the choice of his singers. During performances at Les Italiens, the critics slated a Violetta “so stalwart that audiences actually laughed when she was obliged to convey with a persistent little cough that she was to die in the last act”.
In 1886, the work transferred to the Opéra-Comique before entering the repertoire at the Palais Garnier in 1926. On this occasion, it was Fanny Heldy who gave voice to Violetta and Georges Thill to Alfredo. They were succeeded by Janine Micheau, Renée Doria, Jacqueline Brumaire, Andrée Esposito, Andrea Guiot, Katia Ricciarelli, Cecilia Gasdia (Violetta); Beniamino Gigli, Nicolai Gedda, Alain Vanzo, Alberto Cupido, Giacomo Aragall (Alfredo) and Ernest Blanc, Robert Massard, Louis Quilico, Gabriel Bacquier, Leo Nucci and Lajos Miller (Germont).
With Franco Zeffirelli’s production in 1986 a whole new genre arrived at the Paris Opera: an opulent and luxurious stage set, with a monumental staircase and Italian-style moiré drapes and floral decorations... If this production has passed into posterity, it is as much thanks to its many revivals the world over as to Zeffirelli's own film version made in 1983 starring Teresa Stratas as Violetta, Placido Domingo as Alfredo and Cornell MacNeil as Germont and conducted by James Levine. A Traviata more lavish than moving? That was the verdict of Le Monde: “It fully satisfies the eye with its opulent sets and marvellous lighting, but scarcely touches on the mystery of tormented souls.”
This “mystery of tormented souls”, did Jonathan Miller’s 1997 production at Opera Bastille touch on it more satisfactorily? Violetta has never appeared more alone or more fragile than on that immense stage. Conducted by James Conlon, Angela Gheorgiu lent her voice to Violetta and Ramon Vargas to Alfredo.
2007 saw a return to the more intimate setting of the Palais Garnier for a production conducted by Sylvain Cambreling and directed by Christoph Marthaler. Beneath Anna Biebrock’s neon lights which created a clinical effect in violent contrast with the theatre's golden hues, the director traced the spasms and starts that betray the hidden impulses of that petit bourgeois society. Opposite Jonas Kaufmann’s Alfredo and José Van Dam’s Germont, Christine Schäfer incarnated a Traviata that was fragile and moving, reminiscent of Edith Piaf. On stage, a silent dancer stripped to satisfy the desires of some, whilst others rushed in to cover her. Did she really exist? She seemed to embody the reality we might wish to silence but which persists, the sight of which is profoundly disturbing.Seven years later, it was the turn of director Benoît Jacquot to take up Verdi’s masterpiece in order to depict, through the destiny of Violetta, “the Fall of a woman”. In his production, the stage of Opera Bastille was dominated by Manet’s Olympia, a painting that caused a scandal in 1863 because of its subject: a prostitute waiting for a client. A way, perhaps, of recapturing a whiff of the scandal that, ever since it was first performed, seems to have been the mark of La Traviata?